Jeremy Bowen: “You’re an idiot if you chuck away your bowel cancer test kit”

Home test kits are the key to early bowel cancer detection, but a third of people ignore them. Jeremy Bowen makes his plea after the death of his friend George Alagiah.

The BBC’s International Editor Jeremy Bowen has urged people not to throw away routine bowel screening kits as he talked about the death of his friend and colleague George Alagiah.

 Bowen, who revealed his own bowel cancer diagnosis in 2019, made the comments as he spoke to Sky News about Alagiah, who died of the disease on Monday at the age of 67.

“If you get sent a kit, for God’s sake use it. You’re an idiot if you chuck it away because you could save your own life,” he said.

Bowel cancer screening test kit with letter and sample pot on a purple backgroundCredit: Shutterstock/Mark Anthony Ray

“The thing about bowel cancer is people sometimes get a little bit reluctant or embarrassed to talk about it because it involves poo, it involves backsides, all these kind[s] of things we tend not to mention in polite conversation. But actually if anything goes wrong in your toilet activities over a period of more than a few weeks, you need to go and talk to someone.

“And if you get those little kits that people of a certain age get from the NHS, they can pick up microscopic amounts of blood and you have a good chance of being treated when there’s time. Because when there is time, you can live.”

Regular screening for bowel cancer reduces your risk of dying from the disease, detecting it at an earlier stage when it’s easier to treat. Screening is available on the NHS for everyone aged between 60 and 74 and the programme is now being gradually extended to all over- 50s. You can use a simple home test kit to collect a small poo sample and send it to the lab.

But 30% of people who are sent those kits ignore them – and Bowen urges the public not to throw them away. 

“Don’t do it, because it could be your life at stake,” he said. “I had none of the classic symptoms: blood in the loo, losing weight, none of those things. Four years earlier, I’d had a virtual colonoscopy, which is a big scan of my gut, and I had nothing wrong then.”


“Screening could save your life”

In 2019 Bowen talked about the moment he discovered he had a stage three tumour. He’d gone to his GP because he’d had pains in his legs and back while reporting in Iraq – and a stool sample showed microscopic amounts of blood.

“Initially they said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s very early days,’ but actually it was quite advanced. I had surgery and eight rounds of chemo over six or seven months, I was really quite ill. Luckily, I’d done that test – if I hadn’t I wouldn’t be here.”

Now Bowen has regular follow-up screenings, with colonoscopies every six months, and in June he told Lauren Laverne on Desert Island Discs that having cancer has made him more optimistic.

Genevieve Edwards, chief executive at Bowel Cancer UK, told Saga Exceptional: “It’s great that Jeremy is raising awareness about bowel cancer and encouraging people to take part in screening. His friend and colleague, and our much-loved supporter George Alagiah, often said that he wished he had access to these potentially lifesaving tests when he was diagnosed nine years ago.

“Almost 43,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year in the UK, and it’s our second biggest cancer killer, but it doesn’t have to be this way. By using a bowel cancer test kit, it can often find the cancer before symptoms develop, when it’s much easier to treat. Quite simply, screening could save your life and we would encourage everyone to complete the test when they receive it.”

Bowel cancer: Don’t ignore the signs

Other health problems could cause similar symptoms to bowel cancer, but if things don’t feel right it’s much better to go to see your GP to get them checked. Here are the symptoms to look out for from Bowel Cancer UK: 

Bleeding from your bottom and/or blood in your poo

A change in bowel habits

Unexplained weight loss

Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason

A pain or lump in your tummy

Most people with these symptoms don’t have bowel cancer, but don’t be embarrassed about going to your GP.

How does bowel cancer screening work?

Bowel cancer can affect anyone at any age, but it’s more common in people over 50. Regular screening can detect it at an early stage and find polyps (non-cancerous growths) that might develop into cancer, which can usually be removed.

 If you’re over 60 in England (screening starts from 50 in Scotland and 55 in Wales), you’ll be invited to take part every two years until you’re 75. Since April 2021, the NHS in England has been extending the age range, with tests being phased in to cover people who are between 50 and 59. 

All bowel cancer screening programmes use the Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT), which looks for blood hidden in poo.

You should automatically receive a test kit in the post, so you can do the test in the privacy of your own home. All you need to do is use the stick attached to the lid of the test kit to take a small poo sample. Then put it back into the tube and send it off to the test centre in the Freepost envelope provided. You should get the results in about two weeks.

Most people will be told no further investigation is needed, but still see your GP if you have any symptoms.

If you’re told you need further tests, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. Bleeding, for example, can be caused by non-cancerous growths or another health problem. You’ll be offered more tests to find out what’s causing it.

Bowel Cancer UK has a number of resources to help you take the right steps to regularly monitor your bowel health, as well as more information on how screening works.

Hannah Verdier

Written by Hannah Verdier


Hannah Verdier writes about fitness, health, relationships, podcasts, TV and the joy of reinventing yourself at 50 and beyond. She’s a graduate of teenage music bible Smash Hits and has a side hustle as a fitness trainer who shows people who hated PE at school how to love exercise.

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